I recently had occasion to listen to a tribute to an individual who had passed away recently, and one of the most notable things that was said about them was, “They had a clear sense of self.”
Needless to say, my ears perked up, and I paid very close attention. What I gathered from that tribute, as well as the other speakers at the memorial service, was that this person’s sense of self was central to their place in their community — church, school, and beyond. It was the thing that made them both part of the whole, and a distinct and separate individual.
When it comes to TBI recovery, there are very few elements more important than one’s connections with other people. We are by nature social creatures. Our brains are social organs. So much of what we do and are is geared towards interacting with other people, and when we’re denied or deprived of that interaction, disruptions and disorders can follow.
It’s my personal belief that much of the mental illness and logistical dysfunction that comes in the wake of TBI is rooted in social isolation, or a growing alienation from the world around us. TBI can make it next to impossible to work with others, or for others to work with us. Mood disruptions, unexpected outbursts, agitation, fatigue, difficulties paying attention and remembering what people are saying to us, all contribute to this, as do physical issues like light and noise sensitivities.
But we need to be around people to get better. We need feedback from others to understand how well our strategies are working. We need to have models and examples to follow. We need people. And when we pull (or are pushed) away from those situations because of our difficulties, we lose important opportunities to modify our behavior to become more functional, and recover from our injuries.
If you don’t have a clear sense of self, dealing with others can be very difficult. It puts you on edge, first of all, and that doesn’t help you interact productively with others. It also doesn’t give others much to work with. Interacting with someone who doesn’t know who they are is a little like climbing up an icy hill. If a person doesn’t have clearly distinguishable unique characteristics — opinions, beliefs, tastes, thoughts, etc. — there’s nothing for other people to “hang onto” socially, and the interactions can get slippery. And then there’s more agitation, more irritation, more difficulty. You’re like a ship with a broken rudder tossed about in the stormy seas. You don’t have anything to guide you, anything to steer yourself in the right direction.
Not having a clear sense of self is not much help at all.